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Can technology lift the fog?

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The toll of an Easter Sunday chain-reaction crash in the mountains of southwestern Virginia was stunning: 95 vehicles involved in 17 separate crashes, with 25 people injured and three killed.

This crash was no anomaly. The routinely fog-bound section of highway, strung along the Virginia-North Carolina border, hosts crashes with depressing frequency. And these collisions have continued despite the emergence in recent years of safety systems designed to alert drivers to the danger of potential crashes.

Some such devices even apply the brakes of a car automatically to avoid the crash or minimise the force of impact. But new technology that lets drivers know what cars ahead are doing before they even come into view will augment current on-board sensors within just a few years.

“Of the sensors today, there’s sonar, which is not long enough range, there are cameras, but they work terribly in fog, and Lidar is so-so in fog,” explained Doug Patton, senior vice president for Denso International, an electronics supplier to the automotive industry. “Radar does work in fog”, he said, but at a reduced range. 

Radar-based collision warning and braking systems might at best reduce the force of impact in thick fog. And on winding mountain roads such as those along the Virginia-North Carolina border, it cannot see around corners. “If you couldn’t have seen it, then radar wouldn’t have helped you,” he said.

That does not mean technology will not find a way. This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the US is slated to issue rules on devices that will let cars communicate with each other over short distances in so-called vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications. 

Think of it as an automatic CB radio for your car’s safety systems. But instead of warning of a looming speed trap, cars ahead would alert those behind when a forward driver has slammed on the brakes, relaying a warning of an emergency ahead. Eventually, they will even be able to broadcast facts such as whether the driver has turned on headlights and windshield wipers, which are indicators of poor visibility, or of the car’s antilock braking or stability control systems have been engaged, a potential indication of poor traction due to moisture or debris on the road surface.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has developed an application it calls the Emergency Electronic Brake Light, which would warn nearby cars of rapid deceleration due to hard braking or a crash, says Zac Doerzaph, director of the institute’s Center for Advanced Automotive Research.

 “Something like this probably could have made a major difference,” Doerzaph claimed. And the system would not be dependent on every car on the road carrying it to be effective. “If I can tell just a handful of drivers to slow down, the drivers around them will slow down, instead of getting a sudden stopped vehicle ahead of them. This is the anti-pileup application.”

Doerzaph emphasised that the technology to achieve lowered risk of collisions was “really close”. What may not be as ready are the government regulations that would establish rules for such systems to share information. NHTSA is set to issue those rules this summer, which could put systems in cars as soon as 2016, Doerzaph said.

A potential government-related roadblock: a request from consumer electronics manufacturers to turn over a portion of the radio frequency designated for these safety systems in order to deliver internet-enabled services like streaming radio and social networking to cars’ infotainment systems. Patton warned that sharing the same frequency would mean more testing by automakers before they could put these systems into new cars.

Something like this probably could have made a major difference. — Zac Doerzaph